23 January 2013

FWS Movie Review: ZERO DARK THIRTY (2013)

Since the towers fell in New York, we Americans have been living in strange, complex days. Not since the attack on Pearl Harbor have we seen anything like what happened that day of days. But it was not a hostile government that launched the sneak attack, but a group led by Osama bin Laden, and for over a decade, we hunted for the most wanted man on the face of Earth. All of that ended in May of 2011, when two rounds of 5.56 banged into his skull. The journey it took to place those SEALs at the doorstep of UBL was also a strange, complex story, and the film ZERO DARK THIRTY by Kathryn Bigelow attempts to tell the backstory of the raid that killed the heart of darkness. Originally, Bigelow was going to make a film about the failed manhunt for UBL, then once he was capped, they had to alter the film, with the new real-world happy ending. When the film was finally released, there was much made about the torture scenes and that the events didn't happen that way or this way. Even the CIA attempted to distance themselves for the film. Which informs me that what we are seeing is mostly likely correct. I saw the film on January 21st, at an AMC in Arlington with my wife for our 13th wedding anniversary.

For the most part, Americans do not have a good realistic idea of how the CIA does its job. We've been spoon-fed bullshit for decades, and the reality of intelligence gathering has been skewed by mass media, much like the role and ability of the special forces. That is one of the best elements in the entire film, displaying the work that goes into intelligence game and I give credit to the filmmakers for showing that and pacing ZERO DARK THIRTY to that end. Much of the two and half hours is developed towards actress Jessica Chastain CIA character Maya journey for newbie agent to "the mother fucker who found the house." Thematically and stylistically, ZERO DARK THIRTY is more similar to Body of Lies (2008), Syriana (2005),and  Green Zone (2010) than Black Hawk Down. Once again, I give credit to the filmmakers for not just showing the raid on the compound, but all of it, and doing such an amazing job on drawing out the best from the actors and crew. Everyone, from main star Jessica Chastain to the actors that have only a few lines, even to the location crew all turn impressive performances and lending credence to the film's best picture nod.  
During the raid by DEVGRU, there is no music. None. That mean that every sound is important and very loud. My wife jumped several times when the breaching charges were planted and the thump of the suppressed H&K 416s went off. I was impressed with this choice, and how it brought a good dose of realism that most directors would have hammed up and waved the flag...also the suppressors on the assault carbines was accurate and not some Hollywood bullshit. I was impressed by the level of accuracy with the little details, especially on the stealth helicopter, the gear of the DEVGRU guys. But, the best portion of the film, I thought the torture scenes.
Okay, I'm not some sadomasochistic sick-fuck that likes to jerk off while watching Jack Bauer work someone over, but I respect realism, and Americans have a poor understanding of modern torture...seeing this movie will change that. Real torture for information, like the location of the rebel base, is more about breaking the mind and spirit of the person, not the body. The body is easy. To gain information, the subject must be without hope, where reality is determined by their captors, that is what we seen in the movie. There is nothing in ZERO DARK THIRTY to compare to the scenes out of Syriana or Body of Lies, but it nevertheless heartbreaking to see broken will of these people, and there is one of best works of acting I've seen since Lincoln, and it is almost like they put a camera in the room of a real CIA Black Site. It is that good and powerful, and left me speechless. Interestingly, I thought that Kathryn Bigelow did an level job of showing both sides of the issue of torture in the same fucking scene at the same time. That is skill, my friends. When future generations watch the films of this strange time in American history, this will be one of the ones that will be important to the next generation.

This film is two and half hours, and covers about eight years, and does not play down to the audience. That means you need to really pay attention and it would help to know something about AQ's major players. This does mean, much like Lincoln, this film is not accessible for all audiences, and the message and the purpose of the film is not going to reach everyone. Jeremy Jahns, a youtube movie reviewer, said that ZERO DARK THIRTY was the Jessica Chastain show, and he is right, we just lucky that she is good at her job. Why is that bad? Because only a few characters get much in the way development, and the ST6 operators are really not developed at all, and only given a few lines.
If you were expecting Black Hawk Down: Part II: KILL UBL, then you were wrong, and while I think that this was a good thing, a few of my friends said I should mention it. This could mean that some filmmaker might make a more SEAL-concentric film about the raid on the compound. When it comes to the raid-portion of the film, I was left being bothered by it. Not because of the violence, but the tempo of the scenes themselves. The entire raid up until exfil seemed slowed-down, not like in slow-motion, but it more methodological, careful, and low-intensity. I wasn't even sure when they capped UBL if it was indeed UBL. Perhaps  this is how the raid really was, and I am too much of REMF to understand...that is totally possible.

The very end...it just ends with no text afterwards. Wow...really? What became of the intel gathered from UBL's compound? What about the tail-rotor from the stealth chopper? I wish the film had rounded off the edges for us alittle more just ending with the the finale scene that it has. I have an impression of what she was attempted to communicate with the audience, and I think repeated viewings will clear this up.

Should You See This Film?
That largely depends on why are going to see this complex movie...is it for the raid that killed UBL or is it for the complete story? My advice would be to experience in the theaters only if you are interested in the whole complex tale of how the CIA and local assets give the DEVRU operators a target to hit, because two hours of this two and half hour film is about that. I personally I'm glad I and my wife got to see it and experience one of the greatest story of this time in American history.

Jeremy Jahns' Take on ZERO DARK THIRTY


  1. I wasn't sure about seeing this when it comes over here to the UK, but your review has certainly wet my interest in seeing it now. I did recently wat Act of Valour, the SEAL Team 6 recruitment movie ;-), which was actually rather good at showing the technical aspects of being an operator. By that I meant the moves and use of equipment was brilliantly done, and did credit to boththe directors and serving members of the SEALs.

  2. It is worth a watch, more so that Act of Valor. I wish movies would be a one-world-release, instead of portions of the world waiting.

  3. I was really expecting Zero Dark Thirty to be Black Hawk Down II. Although I was a little disappointed that it wasn't, it's probably a good thing that they handled the topic more maturely. I guess what surprised me most was that the CIA didn't have thousands of men looking for UBL, and that it was almost a fluke that they found him. Maybe they aren't as massive and ominous as I'd always thought.

  4. It is shocking that UBL was hunted to an inch of his life...I have my theories on that...which do not belong on this blog. The CIA is like anything else, its focus determines its reality...and they are not ninja or Jedi. I think one day, there will be a movie that is all about ST6's raid...

  5. Unsettling and unforgettable...challenges the justifications of war's ugly atrocities, without resorting to jingoistic platitudes.